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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

CONCLUSION

Forty days of fighting and maneuvering had cost the Federals 55,000 soldiers and the Confederates 32,000. Put another way, Grant had lost 45 percent it of his original force and Lee almost 50 percent. Never had the country witnessed bloodletting on such a massive scale.

Grant's crossing of the James closed the Overland Campaign and opened the Petersburg Campaign. Forty days of fighting and maneuvering had cost the Federals 55,000 soldiers and the Confederates 32,000. Put another way, Grant had lost 45 percent of his original force and Lee almost 50 percent. Never had the country witnessed bloodletting on such a massive scale. The period from May 22 through June 15—from the North Anna River to the crossing of the James—contributed substantially to the campaign's gruesome tally. Grant had sustained losses approximating nearly 18,000 men killed, wounded, and captured. Lee's casualties during that period reached slightly over 7,000.

The operations from the Rapidan to the James witnessed a gripping match of wills and guile between the war's foremost commanders. The battles around North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek, and Cold Harbor highlighted Grant's and Lee's strengths and weaknesses. The Union general's strong point was his persistent, ruthless pursuit of Lee. He undertook a grueling regimen of maneuvers and attacks that kept Lee on the defensive and forced him ever southward, toward Richmond. But try as Grant might, he could not bring Lee to bay. And he committed the cardinal sin of underestimating his opponent. Cold Harbor was the debit for his impudence. The campaign closed, however, on a positive note for the Federals. Grant skillfully executed a complex maneuver by shifting his army to the James River, leaving Lee bewildered and advantageously positioning the Union army to attack Petersburg.

GRANT'S CROSSING OF THE JAMES RIVER BROUGHT TO AN END A CAMPAIGN THAT HAD BEGUN A MONTH AND A HALF EARLIER. THE FIGHTING AT THE NORTH ANNA AND COLD HARBOR COST THE ARMIES 5,000 MEN KILLED, MANY OF WHOM WERE HASTILY BURIED IN UNKNOWN GRAVES. (NPS)

Lee, for his part, had deflected with consummate skill an aggressive opponent who at times outnumbered him nearly two to one. He beat Grant to the North Anna, parried him at Totopotomoy Creek, and repulsed him at Cold Harbor. But Lee's military combinations, although often inspired, frequently failed in their execution. Illness prevented Lee from springing his trap at the North Anna, and poor coordination caused forfeited opportunities at Bethesda Church on May 30 and at Cold Harbor on the morning of June 1. Lee's inability to thwart Grant's deployment across the James ranks as one of his major military disappointments.

Grant's crossing of the James and his investment of Petersburg that followed ended the grand maneuvers that had characterized the war in the East. Lee was to find himself locked behind earthworks in a siege he had labored mightily to avoid. At that juncture, as he had predicted to Jubal Early, the end was inevitable. It came ten months later.


(click on image for a PDF version)
North Anna and Cold Harbor Battlefields

Back cover: The Flag of Truce, by Julian Scott, courtesy of The Snite Museum of Art University of Notre Dame, Indiana.
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